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The Culinary Library

Worthwhile gift choices from Santa's book bag

By Wes Marshall, December 13, 2002, Food

Bacchus & Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar

by Jay McInerney

Vintage, 278 pp., $13 (paper)

Writing about the experience of flavor is like trying to taste Hemingway. The two different sensory inputs have the potential to obfuscate more than enlighten. Only a small number of writers have crossed the boundary between description and bringing a topic to life. The few examples have been in the world of food writing (people like M.F.K. Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, or Ruth Reichl). Reading their prose doesn't just give you the details; you almost enter the writer's bones and feel what they are feeling and taste what they are tasting. This only happens when you are in the hands of a truly brilliant writer. There is no more brilliant wine writer alive than Jay McInerney.

Bacchus and Me is McInerney at his best, a collection drawing from his monthly column, "Uncorked," in House & Garden. Originally known as the author of Bright Lights, Big City and a member of the literary "Brat Pack" in the Eighties, McInerney recently turned his talents to the world of wine. Like a good novelist, he tells us far more than the details. He uses anecdotes about the people, places, and experiences to take us beyond the particulars. Even better, he is able to bring wine alive through metaphor.

Take these two examples. When discussing what wine to pair with a vegetarian meal, he writes, "Like boys and girls locked away in same-sex prep schools, most wines yearn for a little bit of flesh." Or his description of one of the world's great wines, the French version of Voignier known as Condrieu: "Poking your nose in a glass of Condrieu, you might imagine that you've been dropped into the Garden of Eden, or Kubla Khan's Xanadu as described by the opiated Coleridge. You get the feeling that if orchids had a scent, this might be it."

His analogies run from rock & roll to Raymond Carver, and all of them are fresh and alive. He also has the ability to cut through the hype, promotion, and spin and get to the essence of his topic. And all the while, he is fun to read. If you know someone who is equally devoted to a good read and a good glass of wine, they'll love you for the gift of Bacchus and Me.

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